Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Yoga Exercises for Preventing Back Pain 

preventing back pain
By Faye Martins

The human back is a miraculous assembly of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves. Backs should be both incredibly strong and supremely flexible at the same time. The back supports the whole body from the neck, through the upper back into the lower and then to the bottom of the spine. We use it for every single movement we make. If your back is hurting nothing seems to go right. Your back is the entire support system for your body and keeping it strong and supple is important for your overall wellbeing.

“You’re only as young as your spine is flexible,” this quote was said repeatedly by Richard Hittleman in his 1970s PBS television series, “Yoga For Health.” He was one of the first people to bring the ancient science of yogic methodology into living rooms across the United States. Now, 50 years later, yoga has mushroomed into a movement of health and spirituality practiced by millions of people at all levels of adeptness. Yoga is one methodology that focuses attention on the back. There are many postures or asanas that strengthen it and keep it supple. Once you know the basic movements yoga is a gentle way to wake up in the morning, stretch after sitting or to wind down after a hectic day. 

The entire body benefits from these traditional yogic asanas. From the head to the feet, there is a beneficial posture. Yoga is inclusive, benefiting the whole body. But sometimes our backs need special attention. Here are some classic yogic exercises that can strengthen, stretch and tone your back to prevent pain and to ensure you can move and play at will.

Cat/Cow pose – This exercise is done on the hands and knees. The stretching and curving in this asana helps slowly and surely to work out the kinks in your back.

Downward Facing Dog – Getting into this triangular pose is a great stress reliever. Holding this position helps your back relax and let go of tightness. This inverted posture allows blood to flow into the head while at the same time it stretches the back muscles.

Cobra/Locust/Bow – These three complementary movements are centered on strengthening the back. You alternately tense and rest the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. This is an advanced posture so go easy and rest in between. The Cobra/Locust/Bow is yoga at its finest.

Head to Knee Forward Bend (Also known as alternate Leg Stretches) - This is a wonderful asana that may take you years to master, but every time you do it your back will benefit.

Spinal Twist – this was the exercise Richard Hittleman suggested most often to bolster the back. He unfailingly emphasized the importance of a supple spine.

There are many more yogic asanas that can help tone, strengthen and stretch out the important bones and muscles of our back. Attending a yoga class is a great way to learn this valuable tool to back health. Regular yoga classes can teach you the proper way to do the postures and connect you with other people who are interested in not only the physical but also the emotional and spiritual components of this five thousand year old practice. Once you learn the postures you can practice at home so that you are helping yourself stay young and fit every day.

Our modern lives are busy and filled with much sitting around and lots of stressors. Our bodies and especially our backs take that inactivity and stress and do their best to keep us going. The wise and ancient practice of yoga can help keep our backs limber and our spirit strong.

© Copyright – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Conflicting Yoga Teacher Instructions - “But Another Instructor Told Me…”

valued guidance
By Kathryn Boland

Have you ever had an instructor give you guidance that conflicts with what another has told you? Have you ever had a student tell you that you’re doing that, or learned something in your continuing education that contradicts what you’ve previously learned? A strength of the yoga world is our multiple perspectives and styles of practice.

Less advantageous is the blatant misinformation that some teachers put forth, most often because they were not taught the facts. With no ill-will, they pass on non-truths to the next generation of practitioners. This diversity of thought and poor teacher training combines to have some teachers telling students one thing, and them hearing contradictory information from other teachers. How does one know which teacher’s guidance to follow? Aspects such as cultural respect for teachers, class dynamics, and unique medical conditions complicate the situation. 
This issue surfaced for me most recently with a teacher correcting my weight-bearing hand placement (used in Down Dog, but also in Tabletop, Plank, and numerous more advanced arm balances). I had adjusted to this placement after a workshop in which a teacher advised me to do so because of the anatomy of my shoulder girdle and arms. I trusted the in-depth conclusion, and subsequent change, that we then made.

I also trusted and valued the guidance of the latter teacher. And I didn’t want to offer an in-depth explanation in the midst of class, nor not do what she was asking without giving that explanation. I made the change, and it didn’t feel right for my body. For a second I thought “Well, I can just practice this way when I’m in her class….” But a wiser part of me asked “But what’s right for your practice?” I then switched back to the hand placement that she had corrected. I spoke with her on the matter after class, and her response was curiosity - a slightly scrunched face, raised eyebrows and a “Hmmm….”. She was learning something.
A second instance illustrates this type of situation. Several instructors would often give an instruction for a certain stance in the legs in Warrior I Pose. I also received this instruction personally, and rather assuredly, one class. Both these things together, I took this instruction mainly as a universal given (which, when thinking deeper along with my knowledge and experience as an instructor, only exist in a few select places).
Then another instructor, one class, told me that “you don’t need to do that…so don’t”. In a different class, another instructor told me that I can practice Standing Forward Fold with straight legs. Though I might a make certain argument against that point, I appreciated her attempt to explain why this was so for me - because my “low back is flat as [I] fold forward.” The prior instructor, with the instruction on Warrior I, did not offer any such explanation. I feel much more assured, as a practitioner, in going forward with the instruction with which I received some explanatory context.

I suspect that many students face similar dilemmas. I’ve heard differing views from separate instructors on more instances than these, and something tells me that I can’t be the only one. I also have vague recollections of fellow yogis saying things like “Well this teacher told me this, but then another told me that, so I’m confused….”. I myself have had more experienced instructors correct misconceptions with which I was teaching. I therefore likely confused some students - again, not out of ill-will, but because of lack of experience and understanding.

Yoga practice is so multifaceted, we can’t be faulted for not getting it all perfectly understood right out of 200-hour teacher training. It’s a lifelong journey of growth and discovery. But, to avoid confusing students further, we must be open to learning new facts and accepting that we could have been mistaken. We must be diligent about continuing education, studying under great teachers, and maintaining our own practices. We owe it to ourselves, and to our students who trust us with their minds, bodies, and spirits. Shanti, dear readers.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Yoga Instructors and Student Types - Part II

student types
By Kathryn Boland

In a prior article, I shared some views of my fellow yoga instructors about what types of students they find difficult to teach. I also asked what strategies they use to overcome those challenges, and thus best guide those students in practice. My goal with this was to open up dialogue that can help us instructors learn from each other about how we can move past personal difficulties as teachers to best serve the students who come to us. 

No matter who they are, or how they challenge us, our task is to be the strongest channels of the ancient and wise practice that is yoga. On the other side of the token, there are other students who remind us why we so love the work of yoga instruction. They’re open to trying to new things, insightful, curious, mindful, and playful. To discuss how the pleasant experiences we enjoy with these students might benefit our teaching in general, and perhaps for a bit of joyful levity, I asked those same fellow instructors the following. They responded as follows. 

KB: Not to play favorites, what types of students do you most enjoy having in class? Is there in anything in how you interact with them that's beneficial for your teaching in general? 

Tara Jackson: Hmm...I enjoy students who can allow themselves to be present on their mats in their own bodies. I understand how yoga can be scary and intimidating to the new and beginner, but it's such a joy when students are really able to let themselves drop into the moment - as opposed to letting their anxiety take hold. With these students, I can notice how my words land when I describe the next set of actions as they flow. I always try to deliver clean and clear cues to [my] students, and with this group I can really observe the aftermath of the delivery.

Johnathon Holmes: My favorite types of students are the ones who approach their practice in a playful way. I love the practice, and although it has its serious moments, there is plenty of room for laughter and fun. I’m so happy to watch students make progress in asana, but I’m even happier when they smile and laugh along the way. Watching these students practice reminds me to always approach my teaching from the same mindset.

Tiffany O’Connell: I love the students who are curious and ask questions, during or after class. I especially appreciate when they come up to me afterwards and express that they really enjoyed the sequence, or that what my message/intention was for the class was just what they needed to hear. It contributes to my purpose of making yoga for them more than just asana on the mat. It makes me feel validated in the work I do, and ultimately feel more connected to them - which isn't that the point?!

Jessica Pate: I love having students that respond! A little bit of a joke, but I have noticed (both as a teacher and a student)  that students are afraid to answer questions in class. I love when a class becomes interactive and some dialogue can open up. While we obviously don't want to be chatting the entire class, I think that taking time to pause when exploring some specific action or sensation in the body can be incredibly useful. We all are built differently, with unique bone structure, musculature and connective tissue stories. As a teacher, this dialogue gives me insight into how to better guide my students. However, on a larger scale, taking this time to share different experiences can help both the teacher and student begin to appreciate the beauty that lies in everyone's own unique experience, both on and off the mat.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Yoga Instructors and Student Types - A Few Perspectives

By Kathryn Boland 

Do you ever talk to yoga instructor colleagues about certain types of students that you experience, and through that collaborate on effective teaching techniques for such students? As long as this does not venture into petty gossip, this can be very useful dialogue. I recently wrote an article for this blog about different types of challenging students that we encounter. Each student is unique, and a gift of presence, in his/her own way - and stereotyping never helped anyone. Yet looking at students in general categories can help us yoga instructors develop and refine certain strategies for best serving them.

I described these types from my own experiences - as an instructor, as a student, and from media about yoga I’ve taken in (books, videos, et cetera - which is also taken in through the lens of my own experience). I became curious about what types of students other yoga instructors have perceived, and how that has played into their teaching. I reached out to a few fellow instructors on the matter. These instructors are all active and experienced instructors based in Boston, MA. I hope that sharing their responses contributes to dialogue about how we instructors can best offer our knowledge, skills, and intuition as vessels of yoga for the world - to all whom we guide.  

KB: What are some challenging types of students that you encounter? Why? How do you seek to best serve them as an instructor despite those challenges? 

Tara Jackson: Some challenging students I've encountered are ones who don't know how to express what exactly they're looking for in a class. Months after graduating in 2014, I had a student after class demand from me, "make us sweat" and to move faster next class. I was so confused and offended at her tone.  The next week when I taught that class I focused on more core and a strengthening sequence.  To my surprise, although we moved slower than the student requested she noticed she gained more at this level.  She told me, "I actually struggle with planks, that was very challenging for me.  Thanks for class."

Johnathon Holmes: For me, the most challenging students are the ones who tend to “do their own thing” in class. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, I find it distracting.  It impacts the overall energy of the group to have one student having a “home practice” in the middle of class. I’m always encouraging students to modify or level something up if it’s available, but that is not the same as seeing a student completely ignore you and take themselves a different direction. As a new teacher (2.5 years in), I struggle with how to deal with these students - do I leave them be? Do I politely ask them to follow along with the class? Do I speak with them after class (this is what my gut tells me)? As a teacher it is my job to hold space for everyone in the class – and if a student is acting in a way that is disruptive to me or other students, it is my job to remedy the situation. 

Tiffany O’Connell:  Oooh, this is a tough one because I really appreciate having students of all levels and limitations in class because they challenge me to be a better teacher. I am an extremely sensitive person and so I would have to say when I sense a struggle with a student, be it a pose or a mental/emotional block. I will often use humor, sarcasm or a relatable experience of my own to lighten their burden. 

Jessica Pate: The most challenging student in class is the student who comes in looking to achieve something. This type of mindset is SO hard to escape in our culture because "achievement" is often used as a metric for success. Coming into a yoga class trying to achieve (whether that be a specific shape, state of mind, or feeling) can limit your experience and take away from the beauty of noticing things as they arise organically. My favorite part of the yoga practice is the unexpected. While I teach a strong, alignment based class, I try to take [my] students out of the mindset of a goal-driven practice by bringing attention to some of the intricacies of the body. By noticing small relationships within a pose and how our body and mind respond, we can start to shift our mindset into curiosity and acceptance rather than achievement and judgement.

Kathryn Boland is a Yoga teacher and a graduate of the Yoga teacher training program at: Aura Wellness Center in, Attleboro, MA. 

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